The Ancient and Modern Church

The below post was for an assignment regarding the separation engaged in by the ancient church. To what extent should a church separate from certain practices? Is there anything in culture a Christian abstain from? Please share your thoughts below!

Separation Based on Acceptance

When Constantine granted freedom to the Christian religion, many people would have rejoiced. The terrible persecutions ended, and now practicing Christians could enjoy open worship of God.[1] Austin notes the detrimental effect Constantine’s decision had on the church, “While Christianity converted the world, the world also converted Christianity. The natural impulses of pagan humanity were openly displayed among professing Christians. Doubtless tens of thousands had followed their emperor into the fold of the church without ever experiencing true regeneration or new birth.”[2] Because Christianity was legal, everyone wanted to join. Whereas the illegal religion was once looked upon as a blessed protection, it was now enjoyed by all.[3]

There is a similarity between the legalization of Christianity in ancient Rome and the once, wide-acceptance of Christianity in the United States. Though there is a decline at the moment, there are cultural benefits to “being Christian.”[4] One might place their involvement in a leadership position in a youth group on a resume. One may say that he is a Christian in order to be well received at work.[5] However, these people may not be true Christians. They reject the commandments of God and live as if He does not exist.[6] The Ancient Church would have rejected the inclusion of these professed believers, individuals who may look and act the part but not truly be Christians.

Separation Based on Culture

The early church received persecution for many reasons, but one of the reasons for their persecution was their refusal to engage in the cultural norms of the day. One group of authors note, “Christians gathered in private, and their exclusive monotheism compelled them to refuse all participation in pagan religious observances….they were marked out as a small group of willful dissenters from the very basis of communal life.”[7] Roman culture was anything but Christian.[8] The early Christians, then, separated from the social norms of the day.[9] They separated from the culture, though it cost them everything.[10]

The modern church, however, has allowed much of the American culture to infiltrate and devastate the church. Views of music, dress, and personal sanctification are cast aside in order to “by all means save some.”[11] The Ancient Church would separate from the culture, not embrace it.

Separation Based on Methodology

The Ancient Church experienced a traumatic event in AD 313. The Edict of Milan provided unparalleled freedom to the Christians, in addition to many financial and political advancements.[12] This changed everything. One group of writes discuss this monumental shift, “Thus the church passed from persecution to privilege. In an amazingly short time, its prospects changed completely. After centuries as a counter-culture movement, the church had to learn how to deal with power.”[13] There were many advantages to becoming a Christian after the Edict of Milan.[14] The Church, then, was able to utilize many methods (including financial gain) to gather people into her membership. The Ancient Church, no doubt, rejected these underhanded methods, ultimately bringing further persecution.[15]

The modern church would do well to follow their example. The variety of unbiblical and downright sinful methods utilized in churches today is sickening.[16] The Ancient Church would have separated from this, following Paul’s example of “preach[ing] Christ crucified.”[17]

 

[1] This is a highly simplified description of the events. For more information, see Bill Austin, Austin’s Topical History of Christianity (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1983), 85-93.

[2] Austin, Austin’s Topical History, 90.

[3] “Rome, the imperial order, was perceived not as the real source of the evil by which Christians were afflicted but rather as a power which, in God’s providence, kept things from getting much worse—and this was a judgment which, no doubt in a very rough way, reflected the actual state of affairs.” Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church 4th Edition (New York, NY: Scribener’s Sons, 1985), 53.

[4] David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.

[5] This is the idea that Mark Dever discusses briefly in, Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 14-16.

[6] For a deeper treatment of this, see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith? Revise & Expanded Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 9-11.

[7] Walker, et. al, History of the Christian Church, 51.

[8] Cynthia Long Westfall, “Roman Religions and the Imperial Cult,” Edited by John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[9] Jonathan Hill, Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 54-57.

[10] J. Hebert Kane notes the differences between Christian and Roman culture, and the cost of following Christ. See J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1982),24-33.

[11] 1 Corinthians 9:22, KJV.

[12] Hill, Handbook to the Christian Church, 74-77.

[13] A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1998), 34.

[14] Walker, et. al, History of the Christian, 129-130.

[15] The space does not allow a full discussion on this topic. The reader should consult the following materials for additional information: Walker, et. al, History of the Christian, 130-131; William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996); and Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists: New and Illustrated Edition Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication, 1958)

[16] For one example, see Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Megachurch pastor Steven Furtick’s ‘spontaneous baptisms’ not so spontaneous,” Religious News Service (24 February 2014, https://religionnews.com/2014/02/24/megachurch-pastor-steven-furticks-spontaneous-baptisms-spontaneous/ accessed 30 November 2018).

[17] 1 Corinthians 1:23, KJV.

 

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

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“Do I believe?”

(Photo by adam morse on Unsplash)

In Michael Lawrence’s book, Conversion: How God Creates a People, the question, “Do I believe?” comes up. This is certainly a question we should all ask, and frequently (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). The Church faces a danger in her presentation of the Gospel. At times we present Christ as one choice among many, a relativistic mentality in which one chooses based upon his or her own preference. In this case, it is like choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. While others present following Jesus as a mere reciting of a prayer. If you pray, “God, I know I am a sinner. I know Christ died for me. I believe.” then you are right on your way to heaven! It does not matter if you actually believe it. You said the prayer!

Of course, these two are not the only ways in which we skew what conversion is, and Lawrence notes those throughout his book. However, in his chapter titled, Assess Before You Assure, he offers eight ways in which the Church can help answer the question, “Do I believe?”

  1. “First, slow the membership process down.”This one is tough, especially for pastors. Imagine telling someone who wants to join your church, “Wait, let’s have a conversation and see what God is doing in your life.” His numbers would decrease! Yet, as Lawrence writes, “It shouldn’t be hard to join a church, but unlike the churches I grew up in, you shouldn’t be able to join the first Sunday you visit.” (Lawrence, 104)If we take the time to get to know one another, we may actually learn that one’s understanding of the Gospel is inaccurate. We may learn that they are able to articulate the Gospel, but their life does not match it. Hopefully, however, we learn that they know the Gospel and live by it, which will help confirm, in their own heart and mind, the affirmative answer to our question.
  2. “Second, have pastors or elders conduct membership interviews.”This is an area that I believe many churches could benefit. God gave the church pastor-teachers for several reasons. Ephesians 4:12-16 gives a good overview:“to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (ESV)One way to help answer the question, “Do I believe?” is to be interviewed by an elder or pastor. They are gifted in the areas of biblical teaching and insight, maintain high moral character (through the grace of God, of course), and are given by God for the very task of answering this question (among other duties). In the churches of the United States, we are too easily satisfied with a quick conversation that goes something like this:


    1. Pastor: So, why have you come forward?
    2. Prospective member: I want to join the church.
    3. Pastor: Sounds great! Have you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior?
    4. Prospective member: Yes I did when I was a kid!
    5. Pastor: Amazing. Welcome to the church!


Of course, this is a simplification. However, I do not believe its too far off. Lawrence notes, “The point is to take the time to hear a person’s story in safety. There’s only so much you can learn in the hallway after church.” (Lawrence, 105) A discussion with an elder or pastor will help confirm one’s conversion, or it will open the door to discussion what conversion really is. Either way, the pastor-teacher is able to help develop the “knowledge of the Son of God” in the life of that individual (Ephesians 4:13).

 

  1. “Third, reconsider your practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”The Scriptures have much to say on these two ordinances. I believe the Church, in general, has reacted toward the Catholic understanding of sacraments too much. For example, when someone is baptized we stress that it is merely symbolic, it just represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Or take the Eucharist. We are simply doing this “in remembrance” of Him. We have down played their worth and benefit in order to avoid a wrong understanding. It is a good motive, but one that needs a little correcting. I believe Michael Lawrence’s words are best: “Other than on the missions frontier, as with the Ethiopian eunuch, the apostles had no category for a baptized Christian who wasn’t part of a local church. Devote time in the morning service to hear baptismal testimonies—not of prayers prayed, but of lives changed. When it comes to the Lord’s Super, don’t say, ‘The Tables are open.’ Take time to explain to each other who should participate in the Supper: baptized members of gospel-preaching local churches.” (Lawrence, 105)

We will save the other five for another post. Might I encourage you to ask yourself, “Do I believe?” One assistance is the local church. Are you a part of believers? Have you covenanted together? Perhaps you have never experience conversion. I would love to help you answer the question, “Do I believe?”

 

You can check on the book Conversion: How God Creates a People by Michael Lawrence here.